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God Is Dead
False Images of God

Ronald Stanley, O.P.

False Images

God is dead. God is dead in the lives of so many people. Not necessarily bad people. People who have been turned off by a God eager to cast them into eternal hellfire for failing to visit Him on Sunday, or for an act of masturbation.

God is dead in the hearts of so many. Not evil people. People disgusted by a God of "love" who encourages crusades, inquisitions, religious wars, and nuclear warfare to crush infidels, heretics, and atheists. How can you love a God like that? God is dead. And He was killed, not by His enemies, not by publicans and sinners, but by His friends, by self-righteous Pharisees and religious people.

To be sure, there are people who kill God in order to dethrone Him, to become their own gods, to decide for themselves what is good and what is bad (Gen 3:5). But often the god they are killing is no god at all, but rather a false idol. It is a grisly caricature of God created by His friends, by misguided preachers of hellfire and holy wars, and by well meaning parents who threaten: "God is going to punish you if you do that!"

That false god does not exist, never has, except in troubled minds. That false idea of God needs to die. First, because it is an idol, a blasphemy that turns people away from the living God. Second, because we tend to become like the God we adore. When we imagine a vindictive god righteously damning his enemies to a hell inferno, we can very easily imagine that we too are no longer bound by the command to "love your enemies." We can self-righteously condemn our enemies to the death penalty or to weapons of mass destruction. It's vitally important for us to have a correct image of God.

Re-Imaging God

If God is love (1 Jn 4:8), how can God damn sinners to hell? The answer: God doesn't! God can't damn anyone to hell. Love keeps no record of wrongs (1 Cor 13:5, Heb 8:12).

Jesus was always trying to change people's vengeful image of God. He refused to condemn the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:1-11). He repeatedly preached about a forgiving, father-like God Who never gives up on His sinful son (Lk 15). In His death agony, Jesus forgave His enemies who were crucifying Him, and a criminal at the moment of his death (Lk 23:34, 43).

Could a loving mother forget the child of her womb? Our Judeo-Christian tradition teaches us that even if she could, our mother-like God would never forget us (Is 49:15). Would a loving family or friends leave a suicidal person to his or her worst self? Would they not do everything possible to enter into that person's hell to save him or her from self-destruction? How could the God of infinite love do any less? The Bible (1 Pet 3:19f) and the Creed teach us that not only was Jesus one with us in death, but that He even descended into hell, Peter tells us, to preach to sinners there!  God is adamantly unwilling to leave us to our own worst selves.

Some Christians find it hard to imagine a loving God permitting anyone to self-destruct forever in hell. They note all the Scriptures that reveal God's desire to ultimately save us all (Rm 5:18; 11:32; 1 Cor 15:22; 1 Tim 2:4; 4:10; Col 1:20; Tit 2:11; Rev 5:13). They see the texts which refer to eternal punishment as examples of Semitic hyperbole, not meant to be taken literally, but rather to emphasize the supreme importance of become aware of our destructive behavior.

The Greek word for punishment used in the Bible originally meant the pruning of trees to make them grow better. God cannot permit vengeful punishment, but God does allow the corrective punishment necessary to purify our capacity to grow in love. God is not a softy. God does permit some of the negative consequences of our evil actions to come back to us. We are such hardheaded creatures that oftentimes this is the only way we learn. What goes around, does come around.

Make no mistake: God is not mocked, for a person will reap only what he sows, because the one who sows for his flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows for the spirit will reap eternal life from the spirit. (Gal 6:7f )

To the degree that we refuse to learn in this life, then in the next life God's just judgement will shine the brilliant light of truth upon us, stripping us of our masks and denials, exposing our true selves. We will then know, without having to be told, whether or not God's love lives within us. God will not damn anyone to hell. If people do go to hell it is only because they have knowingly and willingly chosen to separate themselves from God's love. Hell is like a room with the lock on the inside. Given our self-destructive weakness, hell is certainly a possibility for us. But given the power of God's love, heaven is a far greater probability.

Long Live God!

We need to take great care not to project our human cruelty and vindictiveness onto God. The god who damns, or who condones vengeful punishment of enemies, is dead. That god is dead.

We need to let Jesus' living God love us. Jesus' atonement on the cross, His at-one-ment with our weakness and suffering, reveals that His God's compassion has no limits, nor should ours. Long live our loving, living God!

Ronald Stanley, O.P., is a chaplain at The Catholic Center at Rutgers University.  We appreciate him granting permission to use this article on the CRI/Voice web site.

-Ronald Stanley, Copyright © 2013 , Ronald Stanley, All Rights Reserved
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